I am trying to be unbiased in rating this episode, because I was one of the fans who absolutely died when the assembled members of The Order of The White Lotus revealed themselves to Zuko and friends, seeking out Iroh as the last hope against Ozai. Nonetheless, it is important to stay detached from these overpowering feelings, and this is quite more easily accomplished now that the series has been over for so long. Regardless, there are some problems with this episode.
The return of many beloved secondary characters – especially June's role in finding Iroh and The Order – is undeniably one of the greatest features of this episode, yet many fans had problems with the plot, namely the introduction of the deus ex machina of The Lion Turtle. By some mysterious, ancient power, Aang is summoned in a trance to this massive, island-sized creature, where he finds himself the next morning with no recollection of ever arriving there. Marooned with Momo, he seeks assistance from his past lives in attempts to resolve his inner conflict. Aang's trusted advisor, Roku, laments his own part in failing to preempt the War, and Avatar Kyoshi expresses her preference for directness and force as well. The official introduction of Avatar Kuruk (Water Tribes) and Avatar Yangchen (Air Nomads) is absolutely delightful, yet they both concur with the previous sentiment.
Aang then realizes the "island" he is on is moving when he notices a shoreline growing in the horizon. He investigates, discovers the Lion Turtle, and is provided with a bit of arcane wisdom, which isn't obviously intelligible at first. Nevertheless, as is revealed later, the Lion Turtle functions as a perfect solution to the unsolvable dilemma, telling Aang just what he needed to hear, and this seems contrived, and it upset quite a few fans.
In my opinion, this deus ex machina makes sense, though it isn't exactly creative genius. Aang most clearly has the forces of the universe on his side throughout the entire series. After all, the slightest chance saved him from certain death one hundred years ago and preserved him, almost saving him for this future purpose. Perhaps, then, this encounter with the Lion Turtle was predestined, scripted from Aang's birth. This idea of fate seems not entirely unfounded.
In any event, to further critique the episode: though it presents highly emotional and watchable material – Zuko's reunion with his uncle and Aang confiding in his previous incarnations – as well as valuable character development, the episode, again feels like a preamble and leaves the viewer on the edge of their seats. As a note, this can be both a good and a bad thing, but after two episodes of preparation the average viewer is more than ready for the action. The continued build-up, coupled with the deus ex machina issue, makes this episode slightly less scintillating than the concluding chapters.
I think this episode proves that Zuko is most complete character in the entire show.
The Old Masters opens up with a nice suspenseful scene. Jun is forced by Zuko to use her Shirshu, Nyla, to look for Aang. When Nyla can't find him, Jun claims that Aang no longer exists.
There are a few problems that I had with Jun's encounter. How did Zuko know where to find Jun? Was it certain that she was going to be in a sleazy Earth Kingdom tavern? Jun has been known to be a bounty hunter taking jobs and tracking people down all over the Earth Kingdom, so was Zuko just going to wait in the cavern until Jun arrived? It's a dangerous gamble, but I guess it's because Zuko had little choice in the matter anyhow.
This episode is much better than the previous, because it actually debates the conflicts that Aang is facing. Aang tries to consult with his past lives to come up with a solution, and there's quite a bit of good dialogue. Kuruk's dialogue seemed pretty forced and he really didn't give any advice that Aang hadn't heard before, but Yangchen's dialogue with Aang was without doubt the most powerful and well worded argument.
The episode also does a great job of bringing in the Order of the White Lotus. Although not much is ever known about it, I didn't really think they needed to expand on it a lot. The Order was simply an order designed as a society for beauty and philosophy. It just so happened that these same people who belonged in this society and appreciated such things also turned out to be great benders.
If anything, The Old Masters should get a good grade for just showing how good of a character Zuko is. He's complained, he's been annoying, he's been hated, but it's hard to deny that from the entire show, Zuko, as a character, is just flat out more well-rounded than anyone else. He's gone through an entire arc of events and has changed so much. His confrontation with Iroh near the middle of the episode is one of the most emotional confrontations that I have watched in most animated works, and I'm pleased to say that it was probably my favorite and most memorable scene of the entire series. There was nothing more gratifying than seeing Zuko finally hugging Iroh after all this time.
That being said, this episode still had the occasional problem. While I agree that Iroh fighting Ozai would only be seen as an act of violence, Iroh's suggestion to Zuko seemed silly. Iroh wants an idealist with a pure heart to lead a country through political turmoil, inevitable settlement engagements, and the lurking threat of assassination? Does he want to kill Zuko? I know, the stage was always set for Zuko to become Fire Lord, but the ramifications of him becoming Fire Lord at such a young age are clear, present, and most of all dangerous. Does Iroh really have no better idea of a transition of power than to just beat Azula into a pulp and install Zuko to the throne? Isn't that still a fight between siblings, a representation of familial infighting, and a fight for control and political power?
And then of course, is the Lion Turtle. While my comments on him will be explored in the final review of the finale, I have to say that the Lion Turtle is what really killed the episode here. What I love about Avatar is that it always gave a sense of magnitude and importance. The minute we saw Ba Sing Se's walls, all of our expectations from previous episodes just made the sight of the city that much more magnificent. When we first the other Avatars, we were bestowed with a sense of awe, because we had seen so many art drawings, statues, and other such homages to the Avatars that we knew that these were great people who had accomplished so much.
The Lion Turtle? Aang just goes up to it, says "A lion turtle", with an amazed look on his face and bows. The audience is given no context to its importance other than the fact that it looks ancient, is really weird looking, and has an awesome deep voice.
Still, even with all these faults, The Old Masters was a great joy to watch for a variety of reasons. If anything, it was better than the exposition to this finale.